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Passports Needed for Canada and Mexico

Since September 11, 2001, Canada and Mexico have become harder to travel to, and from, and impossible without a passport.

This year is the 150th birthday of our neighbor to the north. While First Nations peoples may have mixed feelings about the success of the colonial enterprise, a party is a party. From time to time, ICMN will be running information about what’s shakin’ in the North Country during 2017, but there are some things U.S. tourists will generally need to know in addition to how to connect with our First Nations relatives.

For those who have not visited Canada since the U.S. decided that terrorism is like a country and you can have a war with it, please be advised that you now need a passport. All of Canada and Mexico, most of the Caribbean islands and a few Central American countries used to be free travel zones for anybody who could prove U.S. citizenship by very loose standards—a driver’s license or a similar ID would do it, and often just verbalizing U.S. citizenship would get you passed with a friendly wave.

Those friendly days are gone, and getting a U.S. passport is not a same-day process, so if you have travel plans for Canada’s birthday, get started on your passport application ASAP. Assume it will take six weeks, and do your happy dance if you get it quicker. If it’s your first U.S. passport, you must apply in person. This search engine on the State Department website can help you find the easiest place to apply.


You will need a certified copy of your birth certificate. Bring the original with the seal, but it is okay to submit a high-quality photocopy with the application. Just like voting in a Republican state, you will need a photo ID from an approved list that you can find on the State Department website, and you need a high-quality photocopy of that as well to submit with the application.

Acquiring the travel document will set you back $135 plus whatever you have to pay for certified copies, postage and photographs to complete the application. That goes up to $165 if you are getting a passport card at the same time.

A passport card is much handier than a conventional passport. It fits in your wallet, and that makes it easier to protect when you are off of U.S. soil. Should you get your passport lost or stolen outside the U.S., head for the nearest consulate or embassy and start the bureaucratic wheels turning, because getting home just got a lot more complicated. I am not informed as to whether having the passport card will get you though the lost-passport hoops quicker. It stands to reason that it ought to, but very little in the war on terror stands to reason.

I’ve chosen to carry a passport card because of the amount of international travel I do to our near neighbors, but your mileage may vary. If your destinations are usually on another continent, the card may be useless to you. Even if you travel like me, you need to understand the limitations.

  • The passport card cannot be used for international air travel, regardless of the destination. There are many destinations, particularly in the Caribbean, where flying is simply not practical, so you are going by cruise ship or private vessel, and the passport card works fine. There are plenty of airports in Canada and Mexico, but they do not serve all the places tourists may want to visit.
  • If you are not flying, the passport card is still good for only Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda.
  • For purposes of using the passport card, Cuba is not part of “the Caribbean.” Yes, I know what the geography books say, but this is politics, not geography. Cuba is also the only destination in the areas where the passport card can normally be used that requires U.S. citizens to get a visa. The costs and the amount of bureaucracy seem to be in flux. If you are going commercial, check with your carrier. If you are getting there on your own, check with a Cuban consulate.
  • If you neglect to get a jump on the passport process because it’s “just Canada,” understand that if you don’t have at least three weeks to wait for your passport, you should pay an extra fee to get into the “hurry” stack of applications. That fee is $60 more plus another $20.66 if you want the State Department to overnight it to you.

In addition to the documents, the so-called War on Terror has affected the verbal banter with the officer from U.S. Customs and Border Protection. You can no longer expect to meet Officer Friendly welcoming you home. I used to state my citizenship as “Cherokee Nation” or try to pass the southern border speaking only Spanish. In these times, being at all playful can get you anything from major delay to a body cavity search.

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The agent will make conversation, and I’ve noted that when you are driving across the Canadian border, there is apparently a computer algorithm that generates questions for you that would be easy for somebody from where you claim to be from but a bit harder for a fake. I report this based on being questioned about small towns in Oklahoma by an agent whose eyes kept darting to his computer and whose accent told me he was not from Oklahoma.

Understand that the agents at the border, unlike police in the U.S., do not need probable cause or even a reasonable suspicion to search you or your belongings. The degree of scrutiny you get is at the discretion of the person who greets you at the border.

Taking electronic devices across the border has become a special problem for persons who have old-fashioned ideas about privacy. I have purchased an electronic writing device that does not connect to the Internet or use a common internal language because I do not want my laptop searched. My gadget is no longer made, but it’s simple enough it will remain useable. You may not be that picky.

The border agent may ask you for login information, including passwords that would allow access to whatever you keep in the cloud. If you are a U.S. citizen, you cannot be kept from entering the country because you would not give up your passwords, but the government may seize your electronic device and keep it while it works on hacking into whatever you have password protected. Or the agent may clone the memory in your laptop or your smartphone and return the device to you. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has published a guide to privacy in electronic devices at the border, but the way to avoid these issues is just do not cross the border with computers or cell phones containing matters you do not wish to share with the government.


This has been information to help avoid hassles when passing the invisible and arbitrary lines that bisect lands of the Six Nations and the Blackfeet and the Flatheads and several others. Citizens of the bisected tribal nations are all aware of the Jay Treaty of 1794. By its plain language, the Jay Treaty appears to grant free passage and the right to purchase duty free across the Canadian–U.S. border to all American Indians.

The status of Indians under the Jay Treaty has been a struggle from 1794 to today, and so information about that struggle does not have an indefinite shelf life. For our purposes here, understand that you can plan and execute a cross border holiday, or you can fight with the colonial governments about the Jay Treaty. Accomplishing both is unlikely.

Two things the Canadian and U.S. governments seem to agree on are their attempt to limit any rights under the Jay Treaty to Indians of half blood or more and the holdings in both countries’ courts that the Jay Treaty is not self-executing. That means the Canadian Parliament and the U.S. Congress have to pass laws ordering compliance with the treaty.

The rights in the Jay Treaty are critical for Indians living on the border with social and business relations on both sides. For those of us crossing the border as tourists, not so much. As an Indian of less than half blood whose homeland is far from Canada, I would not cause trouble over the Jay Treaty because “hard cases make bad law,” and if I made some bad law it would fall on people living on the northern border, not me down here on the southern border.

The U.S. has historically considered both Canada and Mexico to be friends and allies. The formalities at the borders have always been minimal and sometimes none. That, like so much else, changed on September 11, 2001.

This story was originally published April 2, 2017.